"Love Bade Me Welcome": George Herbert's Eucharistic Poetry

By DeWall, Nichole | Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

"Love Bade Me Welcome": George Herbert's Eucharistic Poetry


DeWall, Nichole, Pennsylvania Literary Journal


Like many English majors, I first encountered the work of 17th-century poet and Anglican priest George Herbert in an English literature survey course. Our brief discussion of Herbert focused on his carmina figurata or "shape poems": poems that conveyed their meaning in part through the typographical arrangement of their words. Herbert's "Easter Wings," for example, is printed in the shape of two birds taking flight; another, "The Altar," becomes an altar on the page, the words stacked upon each other like stones. As a college freshman, the poems seemed quaint and looked cool. It wasn't until many years later when I began teaching Herbert's poetry that I came to appreciate its range, variety, and quiet beauty. The sixty-nine poems collected in The Temple (1633) address nearly every aspect of Christian life, including the Eucharist. Three poems in particular, "H. Communion," "The Banquet," and "Love (III)" investigate the complicated and mysterious nature of the Eucharistic experience in ways that still resonate with us today.

"Holy Mr. Herbert" was ordained as an Anglican priest at the age of 37, and served as rector of St. Andrew's Church in the small, rural community of Bemerton, England. Humble and self-effacing, Herbert tended to his flock with unfailing devotion. Contemporary accounts of his good works portray him as a paragon of Christian virtue: he rebuilt Bemerton's church and rectory with his own funds; he provided a home for his three nieces after they were orphaned; he would make the journey to the Salisbury Cathedral twice a week to celebrate the Eucharist. As a service to his fellow rectors, Herbert wrote The Country Parson, a guidebook that offered practical advice about how to "feed [their] Flock[s] diligently and faithfully." A gifted musician, Herbert spent the little free time he had composing hymns: his early biographer, Izaak Walton, wrote that Herbert created "such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven." Later, of course, Herbert's poems would be set to music by composers like John Wesley and Ralph Vaughn Williams; hymns such as "King of Glory, King of Peace," "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing," and "Teach me, my God and King" all bear Herbert's name.

In truth, "holy Mr. Herbert" is the carefully crafted persona that has been bequeathed to us by his biographers. As with most literary figures, it is difficult to sort fact from fiction. We can be quite certain, however, that Herbert's choice to enter the priesthood was an unexpected one. From an early age, the poet seemed destined for a life of political rather than religious service. Born into a noble, wealthy, and well-connected family in Montgomery, Wales, Herbert acquired the credentials that would traditionally qualify him for a court position: an early education at Westminster School; a B.A. and M.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge University; and a prestigious appointment in 1620 as Cambridge's Public Orator. Generally regarded as a steppingstone to a career at court, the position of Public Orator required Herbert to write and deliver ceremonial speeches in addition to serving as the university's official spokesperson. During the eight years that he occupied this post, Herbert cultivated relationships with prominent political figures such as Lord Chancellor Sir Francis Bacon and King James I himself. When King James described him as "the jewel of the University," it was assumed that like the previous two Public Orators, Herbert would soon be appointed Secretary of State and spend his life serving the monarchy.

Herbert's turn from secular to sacred life, then, seems abrupt and peculiar. The poet suffered from poor health for most of his life, and there are indications that his health during this period was worsening rapidly. It is certainly true that after King James I's death in 1625, many of Herbert's political connections unraveled, and his preferment at court was no longer guaranteed. Herbert's earliest biographers, however, describe his abandonment of politics as a spiritual rather than situational decision: Walton, for example, describes Herbert's "many conflicts with himself" during this time, and his struggle to choose between "the painted pleasures of a court life" and "a study of divinity. …

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